Student Applied Research Guide
Helping students to understand the applied research process
What is the applied research process?
Every project will be unique, and at College of the Rockies we have a wide range of expertise and disciplines, so the approach to an applied research project will be unique to the research question and will be guided by your faculty research mentor.
However there are some concepts that are common to most applied research projects, and it is useful to familiarize yourself with these key concepts if you are planning on participating in applied research projects – and we hope you will! The concepts are presented here in the order that a typical project might progress, but feel free to skip around to whatever topic interests you the most.
What is applied research?
An applied research project might start with an observation of a phenomenon or identification of a problem that can be addressed using known methods and techniques to affect a real-world outcome. Applied research is the development of innovative solutions to real-world challenges. It tackles practical problems by applying the latest technology and knowledge to create new products, services, and processes, or improve current products and practices.” That definition is from the Colleges and Institutes Canada website.
Basic vs. applied research: adapted from Baimyrzaeva 2018
|Basic/Foundational/Academic Research||Applied Research|
|Purpose||To advance human understanding and knowledge of the universe.|
To uncover universal laws, e.g. pertaining to space, matter, energy, society, living and nonliving systems, etc.
|To help clients (e.g. companies, industry, organizational leaders) to make a decision about a particular product idea, prototype, problem, or opportunity.|
|Initiative||Researcher initiates based on their own expertise, research skills, and interest.||Client initiates based on their need for information in response to a particular situation, problem, or opportunity.|
|Funding||Funding is usually available from government, universities, and private foundations in the form of research grants.||The client pays for a consultant or employs an in-house member of staff.|
Funding is usually much less than needed for thorough research.
|Who does research?||A solo researcher, usually from one discipline.|
Team projects are less common.
|In-house member of staff or consultant(s).|
(Ideally it should be a research team consisting of experts from relevant and complementary disciplines.)
|Timeframe||Usually longer timeframes compared to applied research.||Tied to the client’s timeframes;|
Significantly shorter deadlines than researchers would ideally need.
|Research setting||Research can be autonomous from its environment.||Research is embedded in, and inseparable from, its real world context.|
|Research methods||Usually uses fewer varieties of data sources and data collection methods.|
Data collection and analysis methods usually build on the researcher’s unique strengths.
|Tends to use a combination of multiple methods of data collection from different sources and a mix of qualitative and quantitative data analysis methods.|
|Evaluation and outlet||Presented in scientific conferences and published in journals subject to peer review process.||Presentation and report submitted to the client and/or funding agency. The client decides whether and how to use the information and whether to make it public.|
Baimyrzaeva, M. (2018) Beginner’s Guide for Applied Research Process: What is it and Why and How to Do it? University of Centra Asia. Institute of Public Policy and Administration. Occasional Paper No. 4, 2018
Research goal or problem statement
As an applied research project, the research question will come from a company or organization. You will work with them to define a realistic question that can be studied in a methodical manner, and express the problem as a problem statement or research goal. This one or two sentence statement defines the issue that you want to address. It is simple, and jargon-free. This is a great place to start to put together a project idea. An example of a problem and hypothesis approach might be: insects are eating all of the cherries before they can be harvested, destroying yield and negatively impacting the economic output of orchards. So your research question (the first iteration anyway) might be: Can the use of pheromone traps in the spring reduce herbivory? Great question! Go to the next step.
Here is a resource for more problem statement help.
Background (literature review, or “Why didn’t someone do this already?”)
This can be a critical step in the process because you might uncover previous research results that point your research question in a new direction, or at least prevent you from making some mistakes! Learn from your peers! Take full advantage of the College’s library and research resources: askaway is at the top right of the library page and links to databases and journals. Check out the new JoVE database!
Search journals, books, databases to understand the basis for your inquiry. With what you’ve learned from the literature, go back and re-visit your problem statement. Following our example: From our extensive and exhausting lit review, it turns out there are a lot of great works in the literature on this topic. But none address the specific caterpillar that seems to be affecting your client’s crop! So you dig further and find there are some good leads on pheromone lures as well. Great digging! Go to the next step, which is actually to go back and re-visit your research goals and problem statement and modify them taking the full range of current knowledge into account.
Start to plan the project (Stage 1 planning)
Now that you (a researcher!) and the company you are working with have a defined research goal, it’s time to start to plan the project. Some important things to consider at this stage are: workplan, expertise, facility, funding and pre-approvals. Still following our example, you decide that to really get a handle on the issue, you are going to test some pheromone lures in the lab and then take the best ones out into the field. You can only do the field experiments in the spring, so you will plan to run the lab work in the winter, review the results in the early part of the year, and then prepare for the spring field work. So you’ll need access to a lab, insect colonies, and have experts participating in the project (entomologist, plant biologist, experts in cherry production, and of course, a statistician). You will need to talk to everyone who is critical to the workplan and make sure they can contribute when you need them. And then you will need to know that it is possible to buy the supplies and equipment that you require, if we don’t have them.
Start to plan the project: Expertise
Do you have people with appropriate knowledge and expertise for the objectives? Applied research projects are often multidisciplinary and there might be several content experts needed to ensure the project is designed and run properly. For example, don’t forget your stats expert! If the project requires collecting and analyzing data, ensure that your results are calculated and communicated correctly by enlisting a statistician expert right from the start. Seriously, on day one. They will help you to design the experiment to ensure you are collecting enough data and collecting it correctly, and they will interpret the data in a meaningful manner.
Start to plan the project: Facility
Do you have access to the equipment, spaces and software that you need? Find out accessibility by contacting the facilities or research manager, or the Dean or Department Head. Can you access the lab during the day? How much space will you need? Where will you put the insect cages? Lots of questions!
Start to plan the project: Workplan
Great! You have your experts lined up, you have the field researchers lined up, and green lights on the facility. Now you can create a realistic workplan about how to get the research done. Considerations of timing (does this have to happen in the spring?), faculty and student availability and how long each step of the research will take will all conspire to make this step tricky. Don’t forget to include time for training student researchers how to properly operate equipment or collect data. Every project’s workplan will be unique to all these variables, so ask for as much advice as you can from researchers experienced in the type of project you are planning. Be meticulous in your workplanning because the researcher hours translate directly into cash costs! The workplan will help you in the next two steps: budgeting and pre-approvals.
Start to plan the project: Budgeting
This is not quite the same as funding. At this step you are calculating the total costs for the research project in both cash (salaries, course releases, equipment and supplies, third party analysis, etc.) and time. You will use the budget to request approvals and resources from the college, and also to decide how to fund the project (and if the project’s projected costs will outweigh the potential return). A typical budget will include personnel costs that consist of cash for professor salaries, course release and student researchers and in-kind amounts for any staff time the college may donate to the project, as well as in-kind or cash costs for the company staff involved in the project. The budget may include equipment and supplies. There is typically a cap on the percent of the budget allocated to supplies in NSERC grants, usually around 20%. There is usually a restriction on the amount of the grant money used for capital expenses too, so be careful budgeting capital items. The Research Office can help you with budgeting!
Start to plan the project: Pre-approvals
At this stage you can present the project to whoever you will need approvals from, even as a project proposal. This will allow the college to plan for workforce adjustments and facilities planning, and you will be able to find out how your project will need to be structured for ethics and regulatory approval.
This is also a make-or-break point in an applied research project. If you have a great project idea but it’s going to cost ten million dollars, you better know where that money is coming from! Ideally, applied research projects that serve companies or industries are funded by those same companies. In that case, 100% of the cash requirement comes from the company. Easy. But not all companies that partner with the college for research can afford that, so you might try to find a funding agency that funds the type of work you are proposing. Fortunately, there are many funders in Canada with different priorities.
If the company you are working with can not afford the full cost of research it is important to identify a funding stream or opportunity that can leverage the company cash to get you to the cash goal. If this seems daunting, don’t worry! Your ARO is pretty good at finding funding opportunities. You will work with your company or research partner to agree on a cash contribution from the organization that you can leverage, and work with the total available to re-define your project expectations, if necessary. Go to the Project Funding page to see what funding is possible. Don’t hesitate to contact the Research Office as well!
Plan the project (Stage 2 planning: Research methods, experimental design, statistical analysis.)
This project is taking shape! You have a goal, a workplan, a budget, pre-approvals and you’ve identified some potential funding. The project is looking realistic enough now that you can spend some time on the experimental plan. This is the heart of the project, so you can spend some time and get it right. Don’t feel shy about talking to as many research mentors and experts as you need to feel comfortable! We are here to help.
First, decide what research methods are most appropriate for your goal. If you don’t know exactly how to approach the experimental design, go back to your literature review and find some relevant, peer-reviewed papers to use as templates.
Remember to have a statistician involved right from the start! Your statistician friend will help you to determine how many data you need and what the statistical design will be. This is done BEFORE you start the experiment, not after you have collected a bunch of data! It’s hard to over-emphasize how important it is to design your experiment correctly, and how important it is to have a statistician involved from the start.
Here are some links to explore some of the topics more:
Statistical design of experiments:
- https://www.jove.com/science-education/11036/statistical-significance (begin at chapter 1.8)
Check out the JoVE database, searching for “experimental design.” This is a great place to start:
Does this seem confusing or overwhelming? Don’t worry! Your research mentor and the Office of Applied Research are here to help you every step of the way. Call or email us!